Edmund Burke ( 1730- 1797)
Edmund Burke was an Irish statesman as well as an author, orator, political theorist and philosopher, who after moving to London in 1750 served as a member of parliament (MP) between 1766 and 1794 in the House of Commons with the Whig Party.
Burke was a proponent of underpinning virtues with manners in society and of the importance of religion in moral life. These views were expressed in his ‘A Vindication of Natural Society’ in which Burke criticized British treatment of the American colonies, including through its taxation policies. He also supported the rights of the colonists to resist metropolitan authority, though he opposed the attempt to achieve independence. Burke is remembered for his support for Catholic emancipation, the impeachment of Warren Hastings from the East India Company and for his staunch opposition to the French Revolution. In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke claimed that the revolution was destroying the fabric of good society, traditional institutions of state and society and condemned the persecution of the Catholic Church that resulted from it. This led to his becoming the leading figure within the conservative faction of the Whig Party, which he dubbed the “Old Whigs”, as opposed to the pro-French Revolution “New Whigs”, led by Charles James Fox.
In the nineteenth century, Burke was praised by both conservatives and liberals. Subsequently, in the twentieth century he became widely regarded as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.
Burke was born on 12 January 1730 in Dublin, Ireland, to Richard and Mary Burke. His father was a successful solicitor and Church of Ireland while his mother was Catholic.
Burke adhered to his father’s faith and remained a practising Anglican throughout his life, unlike his sister Juliana who was brought up as and remained a Roman Catholic.
As a child he lived away from the unhealthy air of Dublin with his mother’s family in the Blackwater Valley in County Cork and he was educated in his early life at a Quaker school in Ballitore,County Kildare,
In 1744, Burke started at Trinity College Dublin, a Protestant establishment and in 1747, he set up a debating society, ‘Edmund Burke’s Club’, which, in 1770, merged with TCD’s Historical Club to form the College Historical Society- the oldest undergraduate society in the world. Burke graduated from Trinity in 1748. Burke’s father wanted him to read Law, and with this in mind he went to London in 1750, where he entered the Middle Temple, before soon giving up legal studies to travel in Continental Europe. After deciding against pursuing Law, he began to earn a livelihood through writing.
In 1752 Lord Bolingbroke’s’ Letters on the Study and Use of History’ was published and his collected works appeared in 1754. This provoked Burke into writing his first published work, ‘A Vindication of Natural Society: A View of the Miseries and Evils Arising to Mankind’, appearing in Spring 1756. Burke imitated Bolingbroke’s style and ideas his in order to demonstrate their absurdity.
In 1757, Burke published a treatise on aesthetics, ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’, which attracted the attention of prominent Continental thinkers such as Denis Diderot and Immanuel Kant. It was his only purely philosophical work,
On 12 March 1757, Burke married Jane Mary Nugent (1734–1812), daughter of Dr Christopher Nugent. Their son Richard was born on 9 February 1758; an elder son, Christopher, died in infancy. Burke also helped raise a ward, Edmund Nagle (later Admiral Sir Edmund Nagle), the son of a maternal cousin orphaned in 1763.
Shortly after he was married, William Hamilton was appointed Chief Secretary for Ireland and Burke accompanied him to Dublin as his private secretary, a position he held for three years.
In December 1765, Burke entered the House of Commons of the British Parliament as a Whig Member for Wendover, Having delivered his maiden speech, William Pitt the Elder said Burke had “spoken in such a manner as to stop the mouths of all Europe” and that the Commons should congratulate itself on acquiring such a Member.
During the same year, with mostly borrowed money, Burke purchased Gregories, a 600-acre estate near Beaconsfield.
In 1765 Burke became private secretary to the liberal Whig statesman,Charles,Marquess of Rockingham,then Prime Minister of Great Britain,
Burke joined the circle of leading intellectuals and artists in London of whom Samuel Johnson was the central luminary. This circle also included David Garrick, Oliver Goldsmith, and Joshua Reynolds. Edward Gibbon described Burke as ‘the most eloquent and rational madman that I ever knew’ and although Johnson admired Burke’s brilliance, he found him a dishonest politician.
Burke took a leading role in the debate regarding the constitutional limits to the executive authority of the king. He argued strongly against unrestrained royal power and for the role of political parties in maintaining a principled opposition capable of preventing abuses, either by the monarch, or by specific factions within the government.
Burke was elected Member for Bristol, at the time England’s second city, but his support for unpopular causes, notably free trade with Ireland and Catholic Emancipation, led to his losing his seat in 1780. For the remainder of his parliamentary career, Burke represented Malton, a pocket borough under the Marquess of Rockingham’s patronage.
In 1774 Burke expressed his support for the grievances of the American Colonies under the government of King George III and Lord North and he was appalled when the disagreements over taxation without representation resulted in the war with the American colonists and in 1776 the ‘Declaration of Independence’. The fall of Lord North led to Rockingham being recalled to power in March 1782. Burke was appointed Paymasterof the Forces and a Privy Counsellor.
Burke was a leading sceptic with respect to democracy and he opposed democracy for three basic reasons. First, government required a degree of intelligence and breadth of knowledge of the sort that occurred rarely among the common people. Second, he thought that if they had the vote, common people had dangerous and angry passions that could be aroused easily by demagogues; he feared that the authoritarian impulses that could be empowered by these passions would undermine cherished traditions and established religion, leading to violence and confiscation of property. Third, Burke warned that democracy would create a tyranny over unpopular minorities, who needed the protection of the upper classes.
On 28 February 1785, Burke delivered a now-famous speech, ‘The Nabob of Arcot’s Debts’,in which he condemned the damage to India by the East India Company and its former Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, who was eventually impeached by the Commons but let off by the House of Lords House.
In November 1790, Burke published his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’ as one of the best-known intellectual attacks against the French Revolution. The pamphlet is a defining tract of modern conservatism as well as an important contribution to international theory. It was one of the defining efforts of Edmund Burke’s transformation of traditionalism into a self-conscious and fully conceived political philosophy of conservatism.
In December 1791, Burke sent Government ministers his prescient ‘Thoughts on French Affairs’, where he put forward three main points: no counter-revolution in France would come about by purely domestic causes; the longer the Revolutionary Government exists the stronger it becomes; and the Revolutionary Government’s interest and aim is to disturb all of the other governments of Europe.
Eventually, most of the Whigs sided with Burke and gave their support to Pitt’s “conservative” government, which, in response to France’s declaration of war against Britain, declared war on France’s Revolutionary Government in 1793.
On 20 June 1794, Burke received a vote of thanks from the Commons for his services in the Hastings Trial and he immediately resigned his seat, being replaced by his son Richard. A tragic blow fell upon Burke with the loss of Richard in August 1794, to whom he was tenderly attached, and in whom he saw signs of promise.
Burke died in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, on 9 July 1797 and was buried there alongside his son and brother. His wife survived him by nearly fifteen years.